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Obama seeks support for attacking Syria while pursuing diplomacy

By Tom Cohen CNN | 9/11/2013, 7:05 a.m.
President Barack Obama said Tuesday night September 10, 2013, that Syria's government violated the "basic rules" of warfare, adding: "The facts cannot be denied. The question now is what the United States of America (will) do about it." (POOL Photo).

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama tried Tuesday to sell a military intervention he never wanted to an American public that opposes it, telling the nation that he needed authorization to attack Syria as leverage in a newly emerged diplomatic opening from Russia.

Calling the United States "the anchor of global security," Obama offered moral, political and strategic arguments for being ready to launch limited military strikes while trying to negotiate a diplomatic solution to what he called Syria's violation of a global ban on chemical weapons.

"Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used," Obama said in making the case that the United States must act when dictators such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "brazenly" violate international treaties intended to protect humanity.

The 15-minute nationally televised speech initially was planned as Obama's final push to win support from a skeptical public and Congress for his planned attack on Syria for what his administration calls a major chemical weapons attack on August 21 that killed more than 1,400 people in suburban Damascus.

New offer impacts Obama's challenge

However, Monday's unexpected diplomatic overture by Russia changed the strategic and political equation. Under the Russian plan, which still lacks any details, Syria would turn over its chemical weapons stockpiles to international control.

That would meet Obama's main criterion of ending the chemical weapons threat by the al-Assad regime.

However, Russia canceled a U.N. Security Council meeting it had called for Tuesday and rejected an initial proposal by France for the framework of a resolution, raising questions about whether the diplomatic effort was serious or a stall tactic to put off a U.S. attack on Syria.

For Obama, the Russian proposal prompted by a seemingly off-the-cuff comment by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry further muddied an already complex challenge in Syria compounded by public concerns of another possible military quagmire.

The president called the Russian offer an encouraging sign, but warned that "it's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments."

Therefore, he said, he asked Congress to postpone a vote for now on authorizing military force against Syria.

In addition, the diplomatic push will provide more time for United Nations inspectors to report their findings on the August attack and allow his administration to continue rallying support for an international response, the president said.

Military to remain current posture

At the same time, Obama said he ordered the U.S. military to maintain its "current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails."

Kerry made the same argument at a congressional hearing Tuesday, telling legislators that "nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging."

However, congressional support for military action reflected public opposition. A CNN/ORC International poll released Monday said 59% of respondents opposed congressional authorization of military action, while 72% said American strikes would achieve no significant goals.